The World Health Organization recommends that children between the ages of 1 and 5 have at least 180 minutes of physical activity a day (1). This doesn’t mean a solid, unbroken three hours of physical activity.
Instead, young children should have a total of at least three hours of physical activity spread throughout the day. This activity helps ensure their general physical health. It can also help encourage gross motor activities for preschoolers and toddlers.
What Are Gross Motor Skills?
Gross motor skills are those that need your entire body to move. They require the larger muscles in your body. We all need gross motor skills to walk, run, and climb.
You also need gross motor skills to keep your body stable when you are doing things such as sitting at the table (2).
Why Are Gross Motor Skills Important For Toddlers And Preschoolers?
We need gross motor skills for everyday activities, such as getting dressed, walking to work, and school, and sitting at a desk (3).
Toddlers and preschoolers need well-developed gross motor skills so they can learn how to:
- Dress and undress.
- Use the potty.
- Navigate the world around them without bumping into things.
- Cope with walking on uneven surfaces and up and down hills.
- Sit comfortably at the table to eat.
What Gross Motor Skills Should Preschoolers Work On?
Toddlers and preschoolers use the long muscles of the arms and legs and their body’s core muscles in physically active play.
Toddlers and preschoolers should be working on the following gross motor skills:
- Bouncing a ball.
- Throwing and catching.
- Pedaling a tricycle.
That doesn’t mean you should put your kids through a set of physical drills every day. You’re not running a boot camp.
Instead, choose a wide range of gross motor activities for your preschooler or toddler. Mix and match games with general activities, such as running, and the occasional deliberate exercise.
There is a lot of fun to be had playing, exercising, and even doing things such as yoga with your preschooler and toddler. Not only will it help develop their gross motor skills, but it will develop your gross motor skills too. And you’ll be preparing them for kindergarten while having fun as a family all at the same time.
Gross Motor Activities For Preschoolers And Toddlers
Any activity that gets your toddler or preschooler moving their body is good.
When I caught our toddler and preschooler painting our newly-decorated bedroom I wasn’t thinking, “What a fabulous gross motor skill activity. Look how they stretched to reach that far up the wall.”
So, almost any activity that gets your toddler or preschooler developing their gross motor skills is good.
If you are in need of inspiration, I have compiled a list of popular, classic, and personal favorite gross motor activities for preschoolers and toddlers. These fun ideas should be a hit.
20 Outdoor Gross Motor Activities For Toddlers And Preschoolers
1. Stick, Ground, Ladder
This activity is simple to set up, needing nothing but a few sticks or pool noodles. It doesn’t have complex instructions for your child to be confused by.
- Lay your sticks or pool noodles on the ground. Place them parallel to each other, like the rungs of a ladder. Choose the spacing according to how big your child is.
- Have your child jump from one gap between “rungs” to another. If your child gets good at two-foot jumping, mix things up and get them to hop.
- As your child gets good at jumping, move the rungs a little further apart to keep it challenging.
With the same rung set up you can also play:
- How far can I reach? Have your child stand on one rung and see how many rungs they can stretch “up.”
- How Far Can I Throw? Give your child a ball or beanbag, have them stand on one rung and get them to throw the ball X number of spaces.
2. Pick The Fruit
For this activity, you’ll need some string or yarn, a tree or fence, and a variety of soft, light objects. You will also need a basket, bag, or box.
- Tie pieces of yarn or string to the lower branches of a tree or the tops of fence posts.
- Loosely attach an item at the other end of the yarn or string.
- Give your child a basket, bag, or box, and have them pick the “fruit” from the tree.
If you are feeling especially creative, you can draw fruits on paper plates or cut them out of card and hang them.
Alternatively, you can use toy plastic fruits, but they can be tricky to tie to the tree.
3. Beat The Stuffy
First, you will need to lay out a random series of “bases” between which your toddler or preschooler will run. You can do this by drawing them in chalk, marking them with hula-hoops, or using items of clothing.
Then you choose a point where you will stand, not too close to any base in particular.
Have your child choose a starting point.
You shout “Go!” and your child will run to another one of the bases. While your child is running, you will try to throw the stuffed animal to that base, aiming to get it there before your child reaches it.
Each time you miss, you retrieve the stuffy and go back to your point to try again.
As an alternative, you can place a different item at each base. Instead of your child choosing a random base to run to, you will shout out an item and your child must run to that base.
4. Run And Sort
For this game, you will need a variety of objects, and three or four baskets or boxes.
Place all of your objects in a pile, or even better, into a large box.
Set your baskets in a row, several feet from the object pile. The exact distance will depend on how big your child is and how much you want them to run.
Label each basket with a color.
Have your child run to the object pile and choose one item. They will then run back to you and place the item in the basket for the appropriate color.
Repeat until your little one is worn out.
5. Giant Memory “Cards”
For this game, you will need a pack of paper plates or a stack of card sheets.
- Split your cards or plates into two equal piles.
- Take one stack and draw a picture on each one. Use simple things such as animals.
- Use your other stack to draw a second set of pictures, the same as the first.
- Lay your memory “cards” face down on the ground. Space them far enough apart so your children can walk among them.
- Have your child turn over two cards. If they find two cards that are the same, they keep the pair.
Riding on a tricycle, bike, or balance bike is good for young children’s gross motor skills. But there are a number of simple gross motor activities they can indulge in at the same time to increase the benefits:
- Lay out fun roadways or mazes for your child to navigate.
- Let them play delivery driver by setting up a shop at one end of your space and waiting for your child at the other. Have them take your “order,” ride to their store, and bring you back your item. For safety, use a backpack for your child to carry items in.
7. Box Builder
Collect as many boxes as possible in a range of sizes and shapes. Enjoy building a city, towers, a spaceship, or whatever else you can think of.
8. Dress-Up Relay
Use hula-hoops or boxes to mark the two ends of your raceway. At each end, place a variety of dress-up items. You can use children’s dress-up items alone or add in some fun stuff from the grown-ups.
Have your toddler or preschooler start at one point.
When you say go, they run to the other end of the course, choose one item, and put it on.
They then run to the other end of the course, choose another item, and put that on as well. Repeat until your little one is tired or cannot get any more clothes on.
If you have more than one child to keep occupied with gross motor activities, they can race.
9. Roll, Jump, Run
One person is “it” and the others wait for instruction.
“It” calls out either Roll, Run, or Jump. They then add a location.
The players then have to roll, run, or jump to that spot.
The first person to the spot wins and is the next one to be it.
10. Pool Noodle Bend Ups
Grab yourself a pile of pool noodles. Each person should have a pool noodle and then lie flat on the floor.
Hold the pool noodle in your outstretched arms, above your head. Sit up and touch the pool noodle to your knees, feet, or toes.
11. Wash The Duck
Draw a large shape on an old item of clothing, such as the outline of a duck on a tee-shirt. Hang the items of clothing on a clothesline or fence.
Give your child a bucket of water and some sponges. Call out “wash the duck” or whatever other animals you have drawn.
Your toddler or preschooler then throws their wet sponges at the tee-shirt and tries to soak the entire animal.
12. Giant “Egg And Spoon” Race
Each child will need a large(ish) plastic shovel and a balloon.
You can have your kids do one of two things:
- Race from one point to another, keeping their balloon on their “spoon.”
- Navigate a maze or simple obstacle course, again keeping their “egg” on their spoon.
13. Scrub Them Down
Most toddlers and preschoolers like playing with water. Make the most of this by giving them a bucket of warm, soapy water and some sponges, and setting them loose. You can have them wash:
- The windows.
- Any ride-on toys they have outside.
- Other washable toys such as balls, bats, or more.
- Anything else you can think of as long as it requires a lot of bending, twisting, and stretching.
It isn’t hard to convince your child to go swimming. But, keep in mind, your child doesn’t have to actually swim in order to make their time in the pool a gross motor skill activity.
Almost any movements they make while playing in the water will help strengthen those long muscles and the muscles in their core.
15. Balloon Up
Inflate a balloon and see how long your little one can keep it off of the floor. The only rule is they can only hit it — not hold it.
16. Running Games Classics
If you have a group of children, classics like Mother May I?, What’s The Time, Mr.Wolf? and Tag are all excellent for promoting gross motor skills.
17. Play In The Park
Take your toddler or preschooler and let them loose on the playground equipment.
By climbing the ladder to the slide, swinging their legs and bodies, twisting and turning on the jungle gym, they’ll be working a wide variety of gross motor skills.
18. Silly Walks
For plenty of giggles with your gross motor skills, there’s nothing like silly walks.
You and your child can waddle like ducks, bounce like bunnies, or rock it freestyle with flailing arms and legs.
19. Catch The Ribbon
Grab a length of ribbon and run around outside with the ribbon trailing behind you. Encourage your toddler or preschooler to catch the ribbon.
You can either hold the ribbon in your hand and twirl it at different heights and directions or tuck it into your waistband for an easier catch.
20. Letter, Color, Animal, Scramble
Draw a variety of letters, numbers, colors, and animals onto paper plates. Lay the plates face up on the ground.
Next, play some music and encourage your child to dance until the music stops. When you stop the music, shout out one of the items you have drawn onto a plate.
If you shout the word Scramble after this, your child has to run to that plate. If you don’t shout Scramble, they stay still until the music resumes and they start dancing again.
Indoor Gross Motor Activities For Preschoolers And Toddlers
Don’t worry if you don’t have plenty of outdoor space or if the weather is bad. You can still enjoy gross motor activities with your preschooler or toddler.
1. Don’t Touch The Laser Beams/Spider In The Web
For this game, you’ll need either string, yarn, or painter’s tape.
Choose an area for play and criss-cross your yarn, string, or tape to create a series of lines across the room. Be sure to leave enough room between your laser beams for your child to climb through.
Challenge your child to make their way from one spot to another without touching the “laser beams.”
An alternative to this game goes like this:
- Criss cross your yarn, string, or tape in the same way as before.
- Affix a small stuffed toy to one spot of the “web” of lines.
- Your child is then the spider who has to make their way through their web and reach their prey.
Sumo is best suited for the older end of this age-range as it can become rather rambunctious.
To play, give each child an adult t-shirt to wear and stuff a small pillow into the front so they have a “round belly.”
Then let the kids “wrestle.”
3. Animal Antics
Make animal masks together and let your toddler or preschooler behave like their favorite animal. If, like mine, your children thwart this idea for physical activity by choosing snails and sloths, choose an animal for them.
If you have two or more children playing, then you can encourage one to be the predator and the other to be the prey.
4. Build An Obstacle Course
Rearrange the furniture, make tunnels out of boxes, or crawl under and over chairs — the possibilities are endless.
If you are in need of inspiration, there are plenty of ideas online.
5. The Floor Is Lava
Just because this is an old game doesn’t mean it is any less fun.
Challenge your toddler or preschooler to make their way from one spot without touching the floor. Why? Because the floor is lava!
This gross motor skills activity can be combined with the indoor obstacle course for double the fun.
6. Stepping Stones
Make your own stepping stones and lay them out around the room. Encourage your little one to step, jump, or leap from one stepping stone to the other.
Variations of this game include:
- Making lily pads instead of stepping stones and being a frog who must squat down and leap from pad to pad.
- Using stepping stones of different shapes and/or colors. You then shout out a particular color or shape for your child to jump to.
7. How Many Can I Carry?
This is another variation of the point-to-point type of gross motor skill activity for toddlers and preschoolers.
Create a pile of items such as teddy bears, empty boxes, or another soft, light item.
Encourage your child to walk between two bases, collecting another item at each base. Your little one can carry them in their arms or older children can balance them on their heads.
For some variation, get your child to hop, skip, walk backward, or jump between bases.
8. Scavenger Dress-Up
Collect a range of dress-up items and place each one in a paper bag, box, or similar container.
Hide the items around the home and set your child off to find them. As your little one finds an item, they put it on and then go look for the next.
Choose hiding places that are safe but which require your child to bend, reach, stretch, and otherwise move their bodies in a variety of ways.
9. Jump The Rope River
Use two jump ropes or pool noodles and lay them on the floor. The space between them is the river, and your child must jump from one side to the other.
But there’s a catch. Make some simple paper sharks (yes, I know they don’t live in rivers), crocodiles, or alligators and put them in the river. You could also use stuffed toys.
Your toddler or preschooler has to jump across without landing into the “water” and touching an animal.
You can increase the width of the river to maintain the challenge as your child gets better at jumping. Alternatively, you can add a bridge for your child to cross. Make the bridge out of a couple of strips of painter’s tape stuck to the floor and make it narrow enough to require a slow balancing act.
10. Simon Says
You know the drill on this one.
To make it an effective gross motor activity for your preschooler or toddler, say things such as Simon Says:
- Do five jumping jacks.
- Balance on one leg and count to five.
- Run in place for one minute.
- Waddle like a duck and flap your wings.
11. Paper Ball Soccer
There are not many gross motor activities as simple as paper ball soccer.
Take a sheet of newspaper, lightly scrunch it up into a ball shape, and off you go. You can set up a simple goal with a pair of chairs or a couple of sweaters as goalposts.
12. Musical Statues
Crank up the music and enjoy some silliness. Encourage your little one to dance like crazy, waving their arms around and kicking their legs in the air.
Turn the music off suddenly. When the music stops, your little dancer must freeze in position. Either see how long they can go without moving, or if you have a group, the last one to move wins.
13. Cardboard Hopscotch
Cut out some squares of cardboard, draw a number from one to ten on each, and lay them out for a game of indoor hopscotch.
Yoga is a fabulous gross motor skill activity for preschoolers and toddlers. It’s a great example of how they do not have to be running around like crazy to be working their skills.
My children are especially fond of doing the poses named after things they recognize, such as the cat, the cow, and the frog.
15. Simple Pretend Play
Any indoor pretend play that requires your child to bend and stretch their body can help them improve their gross motor skills.
16. Walking On Pillows
Lay pillows and cushions around the floor to make a trail. Let your toddler or preschooler make their way from one end to the other.
17. Chasing Bubbles
The simple act of blowing bubbles and letting your child run, jump, and pop them will provide a workout for their gross motor skills.
18. Flashlight Laser
Think laser pointers and cats, except you use a flashlight and a toddler. Run the light around different areas of the home and have your little one catch the light.
Simple but effective. Put on music and dance.
Many children’s songs and nursery rhymes are accompanied by actions. So choose songs that require your toddler or preschooler to march, jump, clap, or otherwise use their gross motor skills.
20. Paper Plate Skate
Tape a paper plate to each foot and “skate” around the house.
Bust a Move
Movement is at the heart of improving gross motor skills.
Gross motor skills are those which allow us to make larger movements, and control how we use our bodies. These skills are important because they form the basis for a range of other skills.
It’s easy to incorporate gross motor activities for toddlers and preschoolers into your day.